Here's exactly what the US needs to do to fix its energy problem
A new study published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science might have found a solution. Researchers have a plan to get all 50 states operating on 100% renewable energy by 2050.
It sounds too good to be true. The plan does require major infrastructure overhaul and drastically changing the way we use energy, but it can be accomplished using existing technology.
Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of engineering at Stanford, and the rest of the research team make a bold claim:
"If this timeline is followed, implementation of these plans and similar ones for other countries worldwide will eliminate energy-related global warming; air, soil, and water pollution; and energy insecurity," the researchers write in the paper.
Going 100% renewable
There's one major change that Jacobson and his team are counting on to make this happen: All fuel is swapped out for electricity in their calculations. That means that everyone would need to drive an electric car and all homes and industries would need to convert to fully electric heating and cooling systems for the plan to work.
The good news is that that's completely possible with existing technology, and it would reduce the total power demand 39% by 2050. The bad news is that's a huge interruption to business as usual for the energy sector, and it would be difficult to get everyone on board.
Assuming we change the energy grid and get everyone driving an electric car, the next step would be figuring out the greenest way to power the grid. Jacobson and the team figured out how each state could use a combination of renewable energy sources using current technologies like wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric, to keep the grid running.
The graphic below shows the proposed timeline. The gray-scale top half of the graph shows how fossil fuel use will taper off. The colored bottom half of the graph shows how renewables will increase over time. TW stands for trillion watts of power. Switching to renewables will drive down the total energy demand from 2.6 TW to just 1.5 TW by 2050:
Tapping into new resources
There's a lot of wind energy potential across the US that you can see in this wind map below. Areas with the most wind are yellow and red, while areas with less wind are blue:
There's also a lot of solar energy potential:what combination of energy types your state needs to invest in to go 100% renewable.
The unique mix for each state was determined by analyzing sun exposure, consulting wind maps, and weighing the cost and benefits of other types of energy like geothermal.
Here's what the energy industry would look like if New York went 100% renewable. PV stands for photovoltaics, and CSP stands for concentrated solar power:publicly committed to going 100% renewable and it's planning to do it by 2045.
Change will not come cheap: Building all those wind turbines, retrofitting rooftops with solar cells, and setting up hydroelectric plants is a huge upfront cost to the plan. The researchers say that because resources like sunlight and wind are free, the cost will even out after a few years and be roughly equal to the existing fossil fuel-driven industry. Further, fossil fuel prices are only going to increase over time. Renewables will help stabilize energy costs.
Not only will the plan slow global warming and save money, it will save lives. Studies have estimated that about 63,000 Americans die every year from air pollution-related causes. Converting to renewable energy would immediately start driving that number down.
It's an economically and technically feasible plan. The huge hurtle standing in the way is gathering social and political support. People don't like change (especially on this kind of scale) and energy lobbyists have a lot of power in Washington, D.C..
Still, making people aware of the possibility and benefits of 100% renewable energy is a good place to start.
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